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Saturday, December 3, 2022

Seeking justice for missing children and unmarked graves uncovers ‘larger’ concerns

Kimberly Murray says an impending bill making Indigenous policing an essential service could make the process of searching burial sites much safer for Indigenous communities.

In June, Murray was appointed the country’s independent special interlocutor for missing children, unmarked graves and burial sites.

For two years, Murray is taking on the heavy task of liaising with Indigenous communities to examine how Ottawa, provinces and territories protect and investigate these sites, with the aim of improving Canadian laws and making recommendations for a new federal legal framework.

Nearly five months into the job in October, Murray says some of those challenges are more sprawling than she first believed.

“The records are proving (to be) a larger concern than originally I thought,” she told the Star.

While obtaining and accessing residential school records held by churches and the federal government have long been considered a barrier to achieving reconciliation, Murray said the issue extends far beyond those entities.

She’s encountered cases of children sent to the schools, apprehended by municipal police for running away, entered into the court system and sent to reformatories, before being shuttled back to the institutions they first fled.

“This systemic interconnection of all these organizations and entities and institutions is much larger than I thought,” said Murray, of attempts to lay out a clear paper trail in each of those cases.

The role of special interlocutor was first announced last summer, after ground searches confirmed the existence of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of several former residential schools. At the time, the federal government earmarked $83 million, on top of other investments, to research and locate burial sites, and to commemorate children who died at the institutions.

Since then, Indigenous communities have grappled with how to go about conducting searches of their own.  As of September, 88 communities have received federal funding to begin that work, Murray said.

The former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the ongoing battle to access records — including those from local police services, hospitals and universities — is mirrored in the challenges accessing potential burial sites.

She referenced the recent example involving Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba, whose radar survey at a campground in Brandon was stalled after the site’s owner blocked access to the area.

“There’s also issues with other sites that aren’t necessarily where the residential school was located, but was associated with a residential school, or we know that Indigenous children got sent to these places,” Murray said.

“Our legislation and our legal framework doesn’t adequately address those concerns.”

These are issues Murray raised at a meeting with federal, provincial and territorial ministers of justice two weeks ago, where she was able to discuss her mandate with government officials for the first time.

Murray said she hopes to conduct similar meetings with Indigenous relations ministers across the country as part of a wider effort to improve co-ordination between hundreds of Indigenous communities.

One of the topics raised in her discussion with justice ministers was enshrining Indigenous policing as an essential service — a topic Ottawa is hoping to address in the form of new legislation this year.

At present, Indigenous police services are funded through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, which was established in 1991. While costs are split between provinces, territories, and the federal government, police services are still regularly underfunded.

Ottawa had initially hoped to table legislation on the matter as early as this fall, a deadline that has now been pushed back to this winter. The legislation is expected to help reform the way Indigenous police services are funded, which would provide communities with full-time, culturally-sensitive services.

Murray said having a safe policing alternative is critical for communities wrestling with how to bring law enforcement into their searches.

Such police services could fundamentally change the way investigations are conducted, Murray said, including allowing families and survivors to actively take part in the process.

“I am always offended when I hear a Crown attorney or a police officer say, ‘Well, we have to protect the integrity of the investigation. To me, that’s very demeaning and disrespectful to the families and their communities because nobody wants to interfere with the integrity of the police investigation,” Murray said.

“That to me is a buzzword, a white people buzzword, for ‘Get out of our way.’”

Having legislation in place as quickly as possible would eradicate some of that mistrust, Murray said.

“(Indigenous police) weren’t the ones taking the kids when they ran away and bringing them back. They weren’t the ones that did the failed investigation when survivors were coming forward about sexual abuse,” Murray said. “If we have First Nations police services, trained, properly resourced, with the ability to do this investigation, that could be the solution.”

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